Hotline Miami is the greatest study of violence presented in videogame form, ever. At its core, it is a beat-em-up where your nameless character checks his answering machine for instructions on who to kill and where to kill them. But beyond the simple act of killing mob goons in 1989 era Miami, Hotline Miami's narrative focuses on the enjoyment of murder and the echoing silence that follows after the act's completion. It is by all accounts a game that is deeper than it appears to be and makes a statement for gaming as a whole, all while providing one of the most mature and excellent beat-em-up games in recent memory.
Combat is all about risk. One hit, one kill, for you and your enemies. Get killed and you restart at the last checkpoint (the start of the floor). You need to plan out your assault as you go through with it. Fire a gun and enemies nearby will hear it and come after you. Don't fire a gun and you need to get in close with a melee weapon. But if you run across a room without making sure the coast is clear and that windows don't have enemies nearby than you may be picked off by another enemy you never saw coming. Each weapon functions differently from shotguns to assault rifles to baseball bats and more. Death comes in a variety of ways and knowing which to use in a given situation will help tremendously in how you kill your opponents.
Dying is a major part of Hotline Miami. This is a fast-paced game and levels should ideally be completed quickly in the span of a few minutes. But death will have you constantly restarting as you learn from your mistakes and eventually plan out a brutal assault that with each kill brings you closer to the edge of your seat. There's a certain anguish involved when the last man standing kills you after you killed everyone else, but by then you have an understanding of how to get by. When to fire a gun, when to knock someone down with a door and then bludgeon them with a baseball bat. When to toss your gun at an enemy as opposed to firing it and then cracking their skull open to avoid getting the attention of nearby enemies. And knowing when to fire your weapon at a solid chokepoint that nearby enemies will try entering through as opposed to taking them on one by one are all keys to completing each level. But a simple press of a button returns you to the start of the checkpoint and you begin the carnage again. But playing it safe will get you lower grades on each level. Playing risky is key to getting the A ratings as opposed to the C ratings. It makes for an interesting dynamic between choosing to survive and going all out and killing every living person (and attack dog).
Much of what makes Hotline Miami so addicting to play is the intoxicating soundtrack. Hotline Miami's sound is like the movie Drive. It's unexpectedly violent, at times muted and just kicks ass when it comes to music. And it is used wonderfully through the levels. The songs are fantastic and fun to listen to, so it's great that they work when looping as you play through the levels. But it is when the game goes fully silent at the end of a chapter that you realize what happened. You murder to the sounds of amazing tunes, but when you kill your last victim, you walk back to the start of the level, passing nearly every victim that crossed paths with you. The only feeling I can liken it to is having the breath knocked out of you. You never pay attention to the fact that you are tearing people apart. Blasting their heads, cutting their limbs off, bashing their brains in and it feels like a gleefully good time, but once you leave and there's nothing but silence you realize there's more to Hotline Miami than meets the eye. And the more you play the more the sublime story begins to pick up. This is a gritty homage the 1980's and is a game that is simply badass in how well the pieces come together.
As homage to the 1980's, Hotline Miami's retro visuals make it feel like a game from that era. You play from a top down perspective in pixelated restaurants, hotels and more. But where Hotline Miami truly succeeds is its brutal depiction of violence and how easily it can make the player feel comfortable with killing and then just as easily bring a sense of unease. Hotline Miami ultimately dethrones anything created by Grasshopper Manufacture or RockStar games. This is what both of those studios have been trying to create but have never managed to achieve: a pulp homage in gaming that honors the culture that often influenced much of it and does so in a way that makes it both a fun and intoxicating experience that is deeper than anyone would have expected. Take my word, I have played Hotline Miami and it is the most badass game released yet. The. Most. Badass.